The comedy show seems to be moving beyond its Left-liberal guardrails
This weekend, actor Woody Harrelson delivered a provocative opening monologue during his appearance on the long-running American sketch show Saturday Night Live. In a clip that now has over a million views, Harrelson tells the audience about a script he read three years earlier while sunbathing and stoned in Central Park.
The plot went, as Harrelson recounts: “All the biggest drug cartels in the world get together and buy up all the media and all the politicians and force all the people in the world to stay locked in their homes, and people can only come out if they take the cartels’ drugs and keep taking them over and over.” He then jokes that he threw the script away because it was far too unrealistic: “Who’s gonna believe that crazy idea?”
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Saturday Night Live has long had a reputation for its Left-liberal tilt, even serenading Barack Obama when he left office. During Covid, however, it went into overdrive. As part of its ‘lockdown satire’, there was ‘Coronavirus Holiday’, a sketch in which a family of anthropomorphised coronaviruses sit in their living room arguing about how to most effectively wreak havoc. A rebellious teenage coronavirus is tired of spreading so glugs anti-bacterial gel, praises Cuomo and announces he’ll be getting vaccinated. The mother wistfully looks back on their family history and says, “who would have thought a year ago we were just a glimmer in the eye of a sick bat?”
In another sketch, ‘The Christmas Conversation’, three young women FaceTime their mothers with the news that they deem it unsafe to travel home for the ‘holidays’. The butt of the joke is irrational motherly love blinding older women to the sensible Covid safety espoused by their exasperated socially-conscious daughters. The sketch closes on a title card that reads, “Someday soon we all will be together. Stay safe, from SNL”.
The idea that the show would allow Harrelson to poke fun at Big Pharma a year or two ago would have been unimaginable, but there appears to have been a tonal shift over the last few months. The earliest signs could be seen in late 2021 with Kim Kardashian’s appearance on the show, in which she broached the topic of her father’s role defending OJ Simpson. She said of the infamous former footballer, “I met my first black person!” and joked about the number of stab wounds he may or may not have inflicted. It was a far cry from the on-message Covid comedy that SNL audiences had become accustomed to.
This was followed by the ‘Covid Commercial’ sketch in which a series of over-worked young professionals sell ‘Covid’ to the audience as an antidote to stress. An exhausted working mum sits on her bed and says, grinning, “I needed a break so my doctor suggested I get ‘Covid’ and it was the greatest week of my life”. Then, in November, Dave Chappelle returned to the SNL stage, where the comedian even offered a defence of Donald Trump.
Whether these performances are part of a trend that mark a wholesale change in the show’s comedy remains to be seen, but they seem deliberate. Indeed, in an interview with the New York Times, executive producer Lorne Michaels appeared to acknowledge how poor the comedy had been during Covid, explaining that “people were truly frightened. And that was reflected in the show.” Declaring 2022 to be “a year of reinvention”, Michaels promised to improve. Perhaps SNL is now finally making up for lost time.